"A DROWNING person doesn't want to discuss life preservers," said Carolyn Adams, director of the Paul Taylor Dance School. "He just wants somebody to throw one in."

Adams' alarum about "a field that feels itself in danger of extinction" was addressed to movers and shakers of the dance world--gathered, appropriately enough, at Jacob's Pillow, Mass., home of the nation's oldest summer dance festival. The aim was to survey the most pressing needs and leading trends in today's dance, and it didn't take long to see the way the wind was blowing.

"It all comes down to money," said Jackie Radis, program director for Chicago's MoMing dance center. "We're worried about facilities, about trying to bring companies to perform here, about showing Chicago what's going on in the dance world. Meanwhile, we're in serious jeopardy of losing the Illinois Arts Council. We must turn to NEA the National Endowment for the Arts . It feels like we're sinking--we need support, both spiritually and financially . . . we feel so isolated at times."

"I feel the dance world is undergoing a tremendous change," said Kent Stowell, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. "The death of George Balanchine means that an era is over. Now we're sort of in a limbo. We're asking ourselves where is our new direction, we're looking for superheroes to take charge and show us where we're going."

Such was the general tenor of the commentary at the two-day stock-taking session, convened a few weeks ago to consider such topics as the future of dance touring, the encouragement of creativity, the marketing and promotion of dance, the quest for performance space, the education of dancers and the role of the media. The meeting was one of a series of seminars in various artistic domains initiated by Endowment Director Francis Hodsoll. As Hodsoll said at the start of the discussion, the purpose was to try to establish the major concerns of the field, and what NEA can do about them.

The seminar also afforded a rare opportunity for an overall look at the present state of dance, how it got that way and where it may be headed. The membership of the panel made it a logical forum for the airing of such broad and elusive issues. In addition to Hodsoll, Nigel Redden, the director of NEA's dance program, and other NEA personnel, the gathering of 23 included dancers, choreographers and directors from nearly every sphere and genre of dance, as well as managers, board members, presenters, and representatives of management firms, state arts councils, university dance departments, the dancers' union (AGMA), the film and video world, the press and dance festivals. Virtually every region of the country had its representative, along with artistic organizations of every dimension.

Inevitably, with so many recipients of federal largesse addressing those responsible for dispensing it, there was a certain amount of special pleading--a subtext of "I want mine" ran like a faint countermelody to much of the discussion. For the most part, however, parochial interests were set aside in favor of disinterested inquiry. Given the disparities of viewpoint inherent in so widely representative a panel, there was quite a bit of consensus as well.

All seemed to agree that the art and business of dance are at a crossroads. Dancers, choreographers and companies have come a long way since the days in which dance was conspicuously the least heralded and appreciated of American arts. "During the last 20 years," noted AGMA's Joan Greenspan, "dancers went from being a starving band of gypsies to full-time professionals."

Nevertheless the road ahead looks uncertain. On the artistic side, there was a persistent awareness that the masters of earlier decades--those still among us--are reaching their waning years, and that although there is tremendous creative ferment among the young, there are no evident giants or definitive esthetic directions on today's horizon. On the economic side, one heard a reluctant recognition that the "dance boom" of the late '60s and '70s has peaked, if not boomeranged. And from every quarter, one sensed anxiety about the future. The nation as a whole may be recovering from recession, but as Greenspan put it, "the arts are the first to go and the last to come back--we're really in crisis."

"Is this survival of the fittest time?" asked Richard LeBlond Jr., president of the San Francisco Ballet. "If so, how do we define the fit? It's cruel, but let's face it, that's what's being asked by the funders. We used to worry whether we were getting our fair share in relation to community theaters, orchestras and so on. Now we're competing for philanthropic dollars with hospitals. It's pretty damned hard to have to choose between emerging choreographers and feeding hungry people."

Another point of general agreement was the singular importance of NEA--its crucial role in generating the "boom" and the part it is bound to play in trying to ensure a fruitful aftermath, despite its proportionately small dollar input. Many factors have entered into the unprecedented burgeoning of dance activity in this country over the past two decades, factors ranging from an affluent economy to "superstar" defectors to the impact of television to a stunning efflorescence of dance creativity. But, the panel confirmed, not the least of the impetus came from the very existence of the NEA dance program, and its Dance Touring Program in particular.

Speaker after speaker extolled the touring program and its long-reaching support of dance companies, providing employment for dancers, bringing dance to communities and audiences across a very broad spectrum and prompting new and adventurous creative work. "The program has been a major source of recognition and support for new directions in choreography," said Charles Reinhart, director of the American Dance Festival. Added Ivan Sygoda, codirector of the Pentacle Management organization: "The Dance Touring Program worked miracles, especially for the many dance companies too small and underprivileged to create a demand for themselves."

The NEA's phasing out of the touring program in favor of other methods of funding was the single hottest subject of the seminar. Dancer-choreographer Murray Louis seemed to speak for the group when he asserted that "the demise of the touring program will be disastrous--it will cut off the lifeline for 90 percent of the nation's companies. It's insanity--how could it happen? Obviously, there must have been things wrong with the program, but this is the complete disappearance of the baby, the bath water and the bucket--all that remains is the towel!" (Added Bruce Marks, director of Ballet West, "the one you throw in.")

Originally, NEA monies earmarked for touring had gone to the presenters of dance, enabling them to engage dance attractions they might not otherwise have considered and to guarantee a certain portion of the companies' fees. In recent years, however, the NEA's advisory dance panel, reacting to feedback from the field, came to feel the companies ought to have more direct control over their touring schedules and funding, and that fresh ways were needed to induce more presenters into the dance market. In the meantime, however, the general level of federal arts subsidy has fallen for the first time in NEA's existence. At the same time, dance companies have been increasingly squeezed by rising costs of production, touring and salaries.

At the moment, the feeling seems widespread that NEA's new approach--giving the money directly to dance companies--won't do the trick. "The trouble with giving the money directly to the companies is that if they're worried about Friday's payroll, the temptation is to borrow from Peter to pay Paul--the touring is way out there three months away," remarked Robert Beaven of the Paul Taylor board. In other words, the money that might have gone toward touring somehow disappears in coping with day-to-day necessities. And without the lure of NEA grant money, presenters are apt to be much more wary of going out on a limb with dance. As Bruce Marks, a former dance panel member, put it: "In dismantling the Dance Touring Program, we assumed the maturity of dance companies and presenters. We took away the carrot coming from the Endowment. The question now is, how do we get the carrot back?" In the meantime, there's no one to take up the slack. Corporations, Richard LeBlond noted, "don't have a peer review panel system for determining what dance to support--it's unique to NEA." And Hoyt Mattox, a major presenter in Houston, averred that "corporations, by and large, want to get bang for their bucks--they'd much rather support the Joffrey Ballet than something like the Brooklyn Academy's 'Next Wave' experimental troupes."

It was clear from the seminar that there's strong sentiment the Dance Touring Program ought to be reinstated in some form. When discussion of the topic ended, Hodsoll intervened to say that though policy on dance funding was pretty well set up to the 1985-86 season, the NEA was open to new guidelines. There, for the time being, the matter appeared to rest.

The seminar gave a multitude of other issues a going over. There was much discussion of how to encourage choreographic initiative, particularly in the ballet world, where genuinely fresh talent always seems in short supply. One of the obstacles may be the traditions of ballet training, which, according to LeBlond "often penalize creativity. They're trying to make obedient machines. I've even heard a teacher say, 'shut up and dance.' " On the other side of the coin, some panelists decried the quantities of mediocre work being turned out by novices, many of whom acquire a degree somewhere and imagine they are full-fledged artists. Carolyn Adams noted that even in the modern dance world, with its habit of breeding new dancemakers from old, not everyone is suited to choreographing.

A lot of talk was devoted to the finding of suitable, affordable spaces for dance performance; a number of panelists remarked upon a recent, typical urban pattern in which impoverished, fringe dance companies take over studios in run-down areas, whereupon boutiques and restaurants invade the territory to cash in on the trade, whereupon real estate values escalate and dancers find themselves displaced by their own success. Others took notice of the changed relationship between dancers here and abroad--for the first time in years, we're seeing modern dance companies from France, for example, coming to perform in this country--companies inspired by and modeled on troupes of Americans who've found a more hospitable climate in nations other than their own. Dancer-choreographer Martha Clarke said that though all her creative work is done in the United States, in the current season "I have four single performance dates here and 10 weeks in Europe."

Some panelists from outlying regions lamented that they are still cut off from the excitement of ongoing artistic developments that have their center in New York. "We need help to see things before they become past history," said Charlotte Irey, dance director for the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We wake up 10 years later and find out that such and such a movement swept by and we didn't know it was happening." Arthur Hall, director of the Afro-American Dance Ensemble bearing his name in Philadelphia, noted that black dance is still woefully undersupported despite its immense contributions to American culture. David White commented on the key role "alternative spaces" such as his own Dance Theatre Workshop in New York have played in the flowering of smaller, innovative companies and independent choreographers, and the need for more such sites. And choreographer Bella Lewitzky asserted that the triumph of American dance has incurred the danger of artistic compromise for the sake of winning audiences and sponsors: "Success begat institutions, and institutions begat a sort of pandering."

Surprisingly, no one raised the question of the Reagan administration's approach to supporting the arts. The administration has put forth the view that the arts are primarily the responsibility of the "private sector," and that the federal government should be acting mainly as a catalyst. This, of course, is in line with American tradition, as well as the language of NEA's founding legislation, but under Reagan the White House seems to be interpreting the creed much more narrowly than in the past. When Reagan took office and created a national task force on the arts, it was even bruited about for a while that NEA itself might be axed. From 1966, the year NEA was established, through 1981, the Arts Endowment's appropriations mushroomed from $2.5 million to $159 million. Under Reagan, the figure descended for the first time. Also for the first time, the administration has been recommending funding levels appreciably below those recommended by Congress (for example, $125 million for fiscal '84 in contrast to the $165 million recently passed by the House).

The White House has suggested that the gap between current levels of NEA funding and real needs of artists can be narrowed by beefing up private--i.e., individual, foundation and corporate--giving. Numerous protestations of unfeasiblity, however, have been sounded by the business world. Witness Frank A. Saunders of Philip Morris Inc.: "There is no way the corporate community can pick up the shortfall created by federal cuts in social services and the arts."

Where does Frank Hodsoll stand on the question? At the time of his appointment, there was some conjecture that he was being given the office to preside over its dissolution--he was an experienced administrator, but had virtually no background in the arts. NEA staffers will tell you he has done a lot of homework--these seminars are part of it--and has become a convert to the "cause," though plainly his hands are tied by overall administration policy. At a press briefing during an interlude in the seminar discussions, he was asked about the administration attitude and its implications. He repeated the administration stance on NEA as a catalyst, and the value of a system in which the arts are more dependent on the private sector than on government. But he also said, in commenting on the White House recommendations for upcoming NEA funding, "The administration position is related exclusively to federal budget deficits," and added, "I am on record . . . as saying that the Arts Endowment could usefully spend more than $125 million." The statement suggests that Hodsoll may now construe his mission to be not just a custodian but an advocate for the arts within the administration.

The seminar produced no answers--just questions. But that is what Hodsoll and his NEA confreres were after. Now it is up to the NEA; in a sense, they're in the answer business, and if the past is any guide, the Endowment's dance program staff will come up with some ingenious life-preserving strategies. Nigel Redden, who heads that staff, said afterwards that his overall impression of the seminar was that the field is somewhat gloomy about short-term prospects, but optimistic about the long term. Optimism is an old dance habit--nothing else would have kept the art afloat all these years in the face of the perennial hard facts of dollars and cents.